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“So the last will be first and the first will be last” (Mt. 20).
Imagine yourself standing in the middle of a long line of people. Far ahead, out of sight on the other side of a hill lies the American dream. You seem pretty far back but it is scary how many people are behind you. Mostly they are people of color without college degrees.
In principle you wish them well, but you have waited a long time and worked many hours to get here. You don’t complain but you have been exposed to dangerous work conditions. Your body is worn out. Your pension was cut. There don’t seem to be any jobs these days and some of your friends have just given up trying.
Always on time, you don’t cut corners. You do your best. People like you made this country great. You faithfully followed the rules but you notice that up ahead others are cutting in line. Some made bad decisions before the 2008 financial crisis; others are immigrants and refugees. Through affirmative action programs the Federal Government is putting them ahead of you.
When the Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild interviewed people in the Louisiana Tea Party she discovered that what united them was not so much a party platform or a set of policies but what she calls a deep story. A deep story helps to explain our feelings. In this case it is about honor, fear, shame, resentment and the relation between social groups. Her study subjects instantly recognized themselves in this story.
The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes that, “human nature is… intrinsically moralistic, critical and judgmental,” that, “an obsession with righteousness (leading to self-righteousness) is the normal human condition… a feature of our evolutionary design.” He goes on to point out that we are not primarily rational creatures. Our moral intuitions come first. Then we make up a rational argument to justify these feelings.
You can test this yourself. Next time you read a newspaper or drive a car try noticing, “the little flashes of condemnation that flit through your consciousness.” We constantly, without effort, form moral judgments. At this preconscious level we make sense of the world and the meaning of our lives. Furthermore this basic non-rationality leads us to be even more resistant to change than we realize.
In the face of our human nature Jesus confronts us with his own deep story about the realm of God. In Barbara Brown Taylor’s words he challenges, “the sacred assumption by which most of us live our lives, that the front of the line is the place to be, that the way to win God’s attention is to be the best person, the hardest worker, the first one into the vineyard in the morning and the last one to leave at night.”
Jesus’ example could not be more familiar. Right now in Madera, Fulton, Turlock, Winters and thousands of towns across the West, Spanish-speaking day laborers stand around waiting to be hired. In this case the landowner, an oikodespote, literally a “house despot” hires workers at dawn agreeing to pay them one denarius.
He returns four times to hire more workers. At the end of the workday he lines them all up to be paid. The workers are astonished when the foreman starts with those who were hired last and then pays every one of the workers one denarius or a full day’s wage.
One of my favorite Geek words is gonguzo. It sounds like what it means, “to grumble.” Most of us feel sympathetic to their complaint. “You have made them equal to us who have borne the burden (the weight) of the day and the scorching heat” (Mt. 20). Being paid last only adds insult to injury.
In what respect does Jesus mean that the kingdom of heaven is like this? It might help to look at the context in which he tells this parable. Immediately before this Jesus tells the disciples that, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Mt. 19). Peter responds to this, bragging that, “we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?”
Immediately after the vineyard parable the mother of James and John asks Jesus for a favor. She wants her sons to be honored with the best thrones in Jesus’ kingdom at his right and left hand. She has in mind satin pillows, gold armrests, engraved coats of arms when Jesus knows that he will come into glory on the hard wood of the cross with a sign that says “King of the Jews.” He answers, “You do not know what you are asking.” We understand the irony but perhaps not his lesson.
Between 1932 and 1967 the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) in thirteen volumes wrote more than 9,000 pages of his never-completed Church Dogmatics. He re-wrote the earliest sections trying to establish his theological method. Barth did not want to begin with a particular philosophical or scientific picture of what it means to be human. He was concerned both that these kinds of ideas are constantly changing and that these assumptions would bias our theological conclusions.
Instead he had this idea of beginning with the Word of God. Faith does not come from inductive or deductive reasoning. Through the Holy Spirit, scripture and preaching God gives us faith. Perhaps like our moral psychologists, Barth understands that we are not as rational as we like to think we are.
According to Barth scripture becomes a way of getting beyond our natural self-righteousness with its “little flashes of condemnation.” He writes, “As [one] knows God’s word… It becomes real… There takes place an understanding, a personal involvement, an acceptance, an assent, an approval, a making present of remote times, an obedience, a decision, a halting before the mystery, a stimulation by the inner life, a basing of man’s whole life on this mystery that is beyond himself.”
We need this help right now more than ever, as individuals and as a society. Our two greatest problems are the environment and an existential crisis about the meaning of work. Since the 1970’s when American jobs began moving offshore we have been experiencing the effects of globalization. Really this is a subset of vast and disruptive technological change that has only just begun. This will affect every sector of our society. We are not just talking about jobs in manufacturing, coal mining and steel. The Los Angeles Times newsroom has only a third of the people it did at the turn of the century.
If you spend a day in Mountain View California you may see as many as a dozen driverless cars. The next generation of these robots will soon replace the 3.5 million professional truck drivers (and many of the 5.2 million other people who work in this industry).
We have to face up to the reality that, whether you like it or not, today earning is becoming decoupled from wealth. Yes, in the future how hard you work will have even less to do with what you ultimately receive. Although this accelerating problem has been with us for a while, politicians have no idea what to do about it. The left has not taken the problem seriously enough. Right leaning politicians bent on shrinking the government and cutting taxes have only exacerbated massive inequality that threatens our democracy itself.
The problem is that work gives us meaning. Since 1999 death rates for middle-aged white people have increased dramatically. More and more people are dying of despair and hopelessness, from suicide and addiction. The poverty breaking families today, and the isolation of having no meaningful contribution to make, is creating an epidemic of loneliness.
In many respects it is strange that Jesus’ story about the day laborers troubles us at all. Imagine being there and the feeling of the last workers’ gratitude as they hear that they are being paid twelve times what they had earned. Nearly everyone in the story is better off than they expected and even the early morning workers received fair pay. And yet we feel dissatisfied.
What we think Jesus’ story means depends on what we believe we deserve. For whatever reason many of us tend to identify with the early morning workers. We grumble that the vineyard owner is not fair and that the Kingdom of Heaven might not be either. We do not understand it but the God of Jesus seems to love everyone without even thinking about who deserves it.
Really submitting to the authority of scripture even in difficult passages this Word transforms us so that we do not merely go through life reacting thoughtlessly to what upsets us. Barth writes, “The Christian is not a stone that is pushed or a ball that is made to roll. The Christian is the [one] who through the Word and the love of God has been made alive, the real [one], able to love God in return, standing erect just because he has been humbled, humbling himself because he has been raised up.”
Imagine that line of people again. Only this time rather than finding yourself in the thought experiment of a sociologist, picture yourself among the laborers waiting to be paid. Do you even know where you stand in this line? What do you think you deserve from God?
If you find the tumult of today’s politics unsettling, it may actually get worse. As technological change accelerates and upends all the social arrangements that comfort us, there does not seem to be much hope for you and me, for creatures who constantly and often harshly judge others without thinking.
And yet Jesus still invites us to be his people. Can we believe in Jesus enough to put him ahead of our self-righteousness? Can we put God in the place of our picture of fairness? What will it take for us to allow our hearts to believe that God loves everyone equally, for God’s deep story to become our own?
 Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (NY: The New Press, 2016), 135-151.
 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (NY: Pantheon Books, 2012) xiii.
 Ibid., 45.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “Beginning at the End,” The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) 100.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part One Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1936) 219.
 James Warren, “Big Cuts Coming to L.A. Times, Likely Other Tribune Papers Amid Tumult,” Poynter 15 September 2015. https://www.poynter.org/2015/big-cuts-coming-to-l-a-times-likely-other-tribune-papers-amid-tumult/373014/
 Santens, Scott. “Self-Driving Trucks Are Going to Hit Us Like a Human-Driven Truck.” Medium. 14 May 2015.https://medium.com/basic-income/self-driving-trucks-are-going-to-hit-us-like-a-human-driven-truck-b8507d9c5961(accessed July 12, 2017).
 Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century tr. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.
 Jessica Boddy, “The Forces Driving Middle-Aged White People’s ‘Deaths of Despair,” Shots: Health News from NPR 23 March 2017. http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/03/23/521083335/the-forces-driving-middle-aged-white-peoples-deaths-of-despair
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part Two Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) 662.
Sermons from the last six months are listed below. Older sermons can be heard through iTunes podcast.
Pentecost 11 2017
There’s a nasty little ditty that speaks to the casual embedded antisemitism of much of the 20th and 21st centuries. It’s this – ‘How odd of God to choose the Jews’. Like much casual racism it’s meant to be funny while containing a barbed and cruel dismissal of a people. It did, however, receive a rebuttal that goes like this: ‘But not so odd as those who choose a Jewish God yet spurn the Jews.’ How is it that, over so many centuries, Christians have chosen a Jewish God and yet shown such hatred and violence towards our Jewish sisters and brothers?
A lot of this comes down to bad theology. In fact this bad theology even has a name – supersessionism (try saying that three times quickly!). It comes from the same root as supersede and has the same sort of meaning of an improved replacement. In theological terms it means the belief that the Church has replaced the Jewish race as God’s chosen people. It has allowed Christians over the centuries to despise Jews as a people who failed God, who did not live up to God’s special calling, who have been left behind in the story of God’s interactions with the world.
We got it so wrong! In the early days of Christianity we were so busy competing with Judaism for followers that we set up a pointless, cruel hostility that lasted down the centuries. If we had paid closer attention to today’s scriptures we might not have strayed so far from the path. Listen to Isaiah: ‘Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.’ Those already gathered – the Jews – are to be joined by those outside the first covenant – us gentiles, not to be replaced by them. Listen to Paul: ‘I ask then, has God rejected his people? By no means!’ and again ‘the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.’ The Jews are God’s called and covenanted people then and now and always.
This is how I understand the two callings of Judaism and the Church. The Jewish people were called out from among their neighbours to be entrusted with a new understanding of God. God as the one creator. God as the author of justice and righteousness calling for right action as much as for right worship. God as the one in dialogue with his people prodding them towards new insights and new responsibilities. These are all things contemporary Judaism still witnesses to as it calls all of us to work for the Hebrew concept of tikkun olam – the healing of the world.
This new understanding of the Jewish people prepared the place where Jesus could come and could be heard. Jesus brought to fulfilment the message of the prophets – that God’s covenant promises were to be for all people. That the whole world was called into relationship with the God of the Jewish people. That we are all her beloved children – Jews and gentiles – that we are all called to responsibility for God’s world. Not in competition but alongside, faith siblings, holding our own candles of divine light to illuminate one another.
And this was a message that Jesus himself had to learn before he was able to embody and proclaim it. Our gospel told us the story of one of the turning points in his understanding. The confrontation with a foreign woman who brings courage, intellect and wit to her encounter with Jesus. This woman who would not be put off by Jesus’ casually racist dismissal but held her ground and asserted her worth. This unnamed hero of the faith opened our beloved saviour’s eyes to the limitations of his love, opened our beloved saviour’s heart to the world outside his borders.
Jesus, the one who was fully human as well as fully God, had to confront his own tribal loyalty so that he could grow beyond it. I remember painfully the moment when I realized my own tribal – racist – views that had been hidden from me till that point. It was when I was 20 and staying in a parish in a non-touristy part of Barbados. For the first time my white skin was the minority colour around me. For the first time black was normal. And it hit me then how my culture had taught me to fear black skin. To see black boys and men as a greater threat than white boys and men. To identify black with crime and violence and riot. Consciously – even then I was a liberal inclusive Christian – consciously I rejected these views. Consciously I thought I was colour-blind or race-neutral – and thought that was a good thing! And it was only then, only in that new environment, that I began to know the subconscious prejudices that were subtly poisoning my view of the world.
Our gospel tells us a bit about those hidden horrid parts of the human psyche. Of the evil that can live in our hearts and defile us. That it is not what we take in from the world that pollutes us but what we bring to the world of our own self-centred viewpoint and behaviour. And we have seen terribly in these last days the violent consequences of these poisonous and abhorrent worldviews. Of an assumption of superiority which sees the other as less than human. Of a continuing denigration of Jews and of blacks. Of racism and antisemitism at its ugliest and most obvious.
And it’s going to take more than one feisty Canaanite woman asserting their humanity to address this defilement in our midst. It’s going to take more than correcting a theological mistake that has infected the church for hundreds of years. It’s going to take all of us white members of the church addressing both our privilege and our prejudices. Let’s be quite clear – racism in America is not a black problem and antisemitism is not a Jewish problem – they are a white problem. Yes, other races can be racist too, but they don’t share the privilege and power that belong to white amercia. And let’s also be quite clear – racism and antisemitism are not just a southern problem, they may be more muted and hidden but they are here in liberal old San Francisco too.
One thing that gives me hope is knowing that Jesus walked this same path before us. It may seem shocking at first to hear him being so dismissive of the Canaanite woman and her daughter. But this story helps turn my shame at my own prejudices into resolve to follow Jesus into open-hearted inclusivity. It reminds me that the Spirit of God is always at work, in every human life, even in the holiest of human lives, even in the ugliest of human lives, at work tugging us towards love and peace and away from bigotry and violence.
Dear Grace Cathedral, dear Church of God, it is beyond time that we step up to address all that defiles us and our society. It is beyond time that we renounce all ideas of superseding Judaism and instead embrace those who hold to God’s first unbreakable covenant. It is beyond time that we follow Jesus in seeing all the ways that our love may be limited and let God’s Spirit break open our hearts to make room for all people. It is beyond time that those of us who are white members of the Church accept the responsibility for change that comes with the privilege of colour.
If not now, when? If not us, who? Let the Spirit of God break us open as the bread will be broken at this table. Let the Spirit of God feed us with the very life of Christ. Let the Spirit of God send us in to the world as agents of love and change. If not now, when? If not us, who?
The Rev. Canon Mark E. Stanger’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.
Last Message for My Son
“You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts” (2 Peter).
On September 9, 2001 full of hope I stood in the pulpit for my first sermon at our new church. I was about to preach about falling in love. But in the silence after the prayer, and before I could say a word, our then two year old son sitting in the back pew called out in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear. “Daddy!” In that unscripted moment I said back, “I love you too Micah.”
Since then I have been blessed to speak about Jesus to our children in sermons almost every Sunday of their lives. Over these years I have always remained grateful for this amazing gift. In a world where God is such a problem for so many people I get to speak about what I love most. This happens in a setting that is unhindered and undeterred by the norms or discomfort of secular society.
During that time I have preached some terrible sermons (I don’t know why but some of my worst have been about films). I have preached many not-yet-finished sermons that I didn’t really understand until a few days later. But there have also been those magical moments with gracious people sitting in the congregation like you are today. They looked interested and encouraged something to come out of me that can only be described as a gift from somewhere else.
So many times God has been with us in the sense of Ellen’s preaching prayer when she says, “Between the words that are spoken and the words that are heard may the God’s spirit be present.”
Today is my last chance, my last sermon with him as a child under our roof. In a week he turns eighteen and leaves for college. I have to let him go into the company of other preachers, to learn from other teachers.
It is so hard to know what to say. How do you prepare someone for the ugliness and cruelty of the world? How do you alert your child to the extraordinary holiness that also arises out of our daily experience? What is the wisdom that he will need in the future?
I suppose that it begins with a picture of what it means to be human. Ray Hart wrote a book called Unfinished Man and the Imagination. The implication of the title is that through the power of imagination we are constantly being finished by our connections with each other and God.
We are creatures primarily directed by our unconscious life, by the mysterious strivings, longings and fears that we rarely can even name. The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes that we are ninety percent chimp. By this he means that we are extraordinarily selfish primates, looking out for ourselves first but immersed in “relentless competition of groups with other groups.” Haidt says that we are also ten percent honeybee. In the sense that we, “long to be part of something larger and nobler than ourselves.” I believe that there is more than this however.
This Thursday in the Cathedral lunchroom Mark Stanger talked about two competing Christian views of our situation. On the one hand there is the idea that the world is a minefield of evil, full of dangers. We have to avoid being trapped and damaged, ruined so badly that we loose ourselves. This picture focuses on the cruelty of the world and the unkindness that we recognize in our own hearts.
In a way we are in the impossible situation of being frenemies with God (that is, friend – enemies like Aaron Burr). Karl Barth (1886-1968) argues that creation does not come first as if it were separate from redemption. Our alienation from God is no further away from us than our creation. In every moment we depend for our existence on the same God that we reject through our thoughts and actions.
Barth writes, “To be sinners means that we have come to a place where our existence is absolutely inconceivable because at this place it can be only a plunge into nothing, where our existence can be understood only as an event of inconceivable kindness….” Another way to express this would be to say that sin cuts off the branch that we are sitting on.
For many years I have been working on a chapter in a book called The Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth-Century Christian Thought. It finally arrived in the mail last week. I wrote about changing views of nature. My story begins with the philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). In his later philosophy Kant explored the idea that we do not experience the world as it actually is (the noumena) but only as our senses and brain reconstruct it (the phenomena).
Kant also cared deeply about the freedom of human actions. For him what we know about God is ultimately based on morality, on our experience of the social world. By the end of the nineteenth century most Christians in most places concerned themselves almost entirely with the social world. I feel this especially when other kinds of Christians talk about what they believe. This picture of faith as relief from sin has an enormous power.
But as Mark Stanger says our tradition also offers another view of the human condition. In his words this picture of the world is “miraculous.” With a mysterious smile he quoted the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (1884-1889). “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out like shook foil… For all this, nature is never spent / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things…/ Because the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration, a feast dedicated to this second kind of faith. In my experience Anglicans care about sin and redemption but our hymns, art, culture, history and the spirit that animates us keep us from thinking that this is the only thing.
On Thursday night at evensong we sang Hymn 46. It conveys this sensibility. The second verse goes like this, “Now all the heavenly splendor breaks forth in starlight tender from myriad worlds unknown; and we, this marvel seeing, forget our selfish being for joy of beauty not our own.” You might have known this, “joy of beauty not our own.”
I imagine the disciples did long after his death in recalling the joy of being with Jesus. Jesus goes to a mountaintop to pray with his friends Peter, James and John. As he prays his image (eidos) changes and his clothes flash with the whiteness of lightning. Then the great prophets Moses and Elijah speak to him. Strangely Jesus’ friends feel weighed down by sleep but manage to stay awake. When Jesus, Moses and Elijah are done talking Peter says that he wants to build dwellings for them. Suddenly clouds cover them, the disciples are terrified and a voice declares Jesus to be God’s son (Lk. 9).
I want to point out one striking thing about the story. Although this may have been one of the most important moments of their lives, the disciples almost missed it by being asleep.
This week after yoga Sadvi Bhagawati Saraswati and I were on a panel together being interviewed. The first question was for her and it went like this. “Why are you a spiritual leader in India when it would have been so much easier for you to stay here and be an Episcopalian minister?”
Sadvi told the story of how she woke up. She grew up in the U.S. attended Stanford as an undergraduate and was a twenty-five year old psychology doctoral student when on a lark she decided to go to India. There she had an experience of God that changed her life. She did not choose this. She felt compelled. She said it was as if she had been walking along a beach picking up seashells when all of a sudden she came upon someone offering her diamonds instead. It was obvious to her that she should throw away all the seashells so that she could carry the jewels.
Every day you too are being offered diamonds. But too often we just sleep through it. Instead of waking up to transfiguration we are obsessed with how our bodies look, our accomplishments, how others perceive us. We are haunted by regrets about the past. We refuse to live in the present because of our dreams of the future.
This week I listened to a Dear Sugars Podcast about the struggles of teenagers. One twenty-year-old girl had been captain of her high school cross-country team, valedictorian, totally in control of her grades and weight. Everyone always commented about how beautiful she was. By the time she reached college she realized that she had an eating disorder. What struck me most about the broadcast was how much she and the hosts, and all of us, care so much about what people thought of us in high school.
What will it take for us to wake up out of this dreamlike existence, for us to stop trying to always win other people’s approval through our accomplishments and our appearance (from trying to win over even God)? How can we wake up to see the moments of transfiguration happening all around us? The Apostle Paul writes to his friends, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead and Christ will shine upon you” (Eph. 5).
Something like this happened to me this weekend. My son and I went surfing at Bolinas for one last time before he leaves for college. On a perfectly still, impossibly temperate summer day we passed along the edge of the mirror-like lagoon and I felt an intense surge of emotion. Later we traded perfect glassy waves, just the two of us, resting only to watch the pelicans glide past. Above the rim of hills the sky, with distant high clouds and closer mists, seemed infinitely beautiful and mysterious.
In that moment it seemed like God said, “as far as you can see from Pedro Point in San Mateo County to Duxbury Reef, this is the world given for you.”
The last sermon is done and I can hardly believe that this season of our life is over. What I want for my son is the same thing I want for all of us. In terms of the first picture of faith, I pray that we are forces of compassion, justice and goodness, that through kindness our lives will build God’s kingdom. But I also pray for the second religious vision. I pray that we will recognize that the “world is charged with the grandeur of God.” I pray we will seek and discover “the joy of beauty not our own.
 Ray L. Hart, Unfinished Man and the Imagination (NY: Herder & Herder, 1968).
 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (NY: Pantheon, 2012) 220.
 “To be sinners, as we are shown to be in the revelation of Jesus Christ, means that we have separated ourselves from the One without whom we would not be even in this separation and yet, separated from whom, we cannot be in any true or proper sense. To be sinners means that we have come to a place where our existence is absolutely inconceivable because at this place it can be only a plunge into nothing, where our existence can be understood only as an event of inconceivable kindness, or it cannot be understood at all.” Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part One Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) 444.
 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1965).
 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993).
 Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems, 3rd Edition (Oxford University Press, 1948) 70.
 Hymn 46 from The 1980 Hymnal. Words Paul Gerhard, translated by Robert Seymour Bridges and others, Music, “O Welt, ich muss dich lassen, melody attributed to Heinrich Isaac (1450?-1517); harmony Johann Sebastian Bach.
 Tuesday 1 August 2017.
 The second element in the story that seems odd to me is Peter’s offer to make three dwellings (called skēnas in Greek). This is the same word that John uses in his prologue when he talks about the Word dwelling among us. Matthew writes that Peter did not know what he was saying. And yet I have a sense for why he did. I think that this refers to our longing to hold on to these moments of transfiguration. We want to stay on the mountain, to remain in that moment of unity with God forever. We can be so overcome by the beauty of holiness that we do not trust that God will give us this experience again.
“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field” (Mt. 13).
The preacher Barbara Brown Taylor points out that one of the most difficult parts of believing in God is trying to talk about God. When someone asks you why you believe, or how your faith makes a practical difference in your life, it is hard to provide an answer. When we finally do say something the words seem so inadequate to our experience. Something is inevitably lost.
On the evening of May 24, 1738 after a period of despair, John Wesley “very unwillingly” went to church. He listened to someone reading Martin Luther’s preface to Romans. And in his Journal he writes about what happened next. “[W]hile [the reader] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins…”
That’s it. It may not sound like much but this experience of a strangely warmed heart changed Wesley’s whole life. He went on to preach an average of two sermons a day. In 52 years he traveled 250,000 miles on horseback. Although he lived and died as an Anglican priest, the Methodist, Pentecostal, Assembly of God denominations, most of the fastest growing churches around the world today, were inspired by his teaching.
When the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) died they found sewn into his clothing a written account of the most powerful experience he had had in his life. It read, “FIRE. God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars. Certainty, certainty, heartfelt joy, peace. The world forgotten, and everything except God. Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy… Jesus Christ; Jesus Christ. Total submission to Jesus Christ…” Hearing what Pascal wrote, we know something extraordinary happened to him, but we cannot at all grasp it. It belongs to him and God alone.
We cannot easily find the words which can communicate our own experiences of the holy. But that is not our only problem. We have difficulty even understanding what counts as a religious experience.
The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) writes, “The speech of God is and remains the mystery of God supremely in its secularity. When God speaks to [human beings], this event never demarcates itself from other events in such a way that it might not be interpreted… as part of these other events.” In other words we never know for sure when or how God is addressing us. I believe that God speaks to us even through our unconscious thoughts. This might be as simple as a sense of gratitude at seeing the morning light through the fog at dawn on a summer day.
We require ordinary things to talk about the holy. And so we do our best to describe God. Meeting God is like falling in love, like erasing all the pain we have ever known, or totally forgetting your self. It is like being present at the creation of the whole world, or becoming really free for the first time, or feeling like you will never die. As a surfer God breaking through to us feels like that moment as you tuck in the tube behind a curtain of translucent water and time just seems to stop.
We can’t get it exactly right but we can give a sense for what we mean. Jesus understands how we need ordinary words to interrupt our habitual ways of experiencing the world. The right image can provoke a change of heart that might just save our life. And so Jesus persists with comparisons that perplex, stretch and delight us.
This morning he repeats a simple phrase over and over. “ÔOmoi÷a e˙sti«n hJ basilei÷a tw◊n oujranw◊n), “the kingdom of heaven is like…” (Mt. 13). Before we go too much further I want to tell you one thing about this gospel. When you compare Matthew to the other gospel writers he stands out as being more intensely interested in the final judgment. He is the one who writes the most about “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” He’s the only one who tells parables about separating the sheep from the goats, or the wise and foolish virgins (Mt. 25).
We all have a different tolerance for ambiguity and in comparison to others I think our brother Matthew may want everything to be clearer, more a matter of black and white, good and evil. Although I am more likely to see both good and bad in every person I appreciate that Matthew warns us that a lot is at stake.
My point is that these parables about the kingdom of heaven do not primarily seem to be about judgment. In one a tiny seed (o§ mikro/teron) grows into such a great tree that the birds of heaven nest in its branches. Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is also like the small amount of yeast that a woman hides in the midst of grain which causes it to become bread.
Before we can catch our breath or wonder what these metaphors have in common Jesus throws some other ones at us. The kingdom of heaven is like a man who finds treasure in a field, reburies it and then “in his joy” sells all he has so that he can buy the field.
One of my favorite images in the Bible, for very personal reasons, comes next. The kingdom is like an emporo, related to our word, emporium, that is a merchant searching for fine pearls. Finding the pearl of great value, he sells everything in order to buy it. It feels like Jesus addresses me personally here. My wife’s Hawaiian name means pearl and I would give up everything I own for her.
But Jesus does not stop. The kingdom is like a net thrown into the sea. What I love about this one is that Jesus does not use the Greek word for fish. The net catches simply “out of every kind” (e˙k panto\ß ge÷nouß sunagagou/shØ) without exactly specifying what. After all these images of finding things this refers to the experience of being found. Each of us is unique. We have such different stories, yet together we celebrate being found by God in this net of love.
For me what unifies all these pictures of the kingdom of heaven is the theme of hiddenness. The key word for what the woman does with her yeast is enkrupto. It is related to word encrypt (e˙ne÷kruyen). She hides the yeast in the grain. In these stories what is hidden and small becomes big and life sustaining. What is hidden and unrecognized turns out to be worth all that we have.
The theologian Karl Barth writes that our inability to constantly experience God arises out of the limits of our existence and perception. We are human and God is God. We cannot even think God. But God overcomes this distance. He writes, “God’s word has for our sakes stepped forth out of its self-contained existence into the circle of things which we can know.” He describes faith not as believing but as a gift to us that must be “seized again and again.” This gift is the recognition that our whole life is lived in God.
Great musicians, artists and writers refer to this hidden experience of God in different ways. Composer George Gershwin (1898-1937) writes simply, “I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise.” The twentieth century organist Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) says, “Certain people are annoyed that I believe in God. But I want people to know that God is present in everything, in the concert hall, in the ocean, on a mountain, even on the underground.”
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) describes himself as a watchman whose, “profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature.” The novelist Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) writes, “The unwearied self-forgetful attention to every phase of the living universe reflected in our consciousness may be our appointed task on this earth.”
In a letter to his sister Alice the American philosopher William James (1842-1910) writes that, “the best way to define a man’s character would be to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude, in which when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensely active and alive. At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says, ‘this is the real me.’”
This week Ellen Clark-King talked to me about spiritual practices inspired by Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556). She suggested that for one week each of us could adopt the following practice for seeking out God. At the end of each day could we ask ourselves two questions. The first is, “when were you most alive?” And the second is, “when were you most detached?” In these questions and their answers we will listen to the Holy.
Where do we find God and the words to share our discoveries? Jesus teaches that these come to us in the most ordinary experiences, in the most common words we know. On the one hand you may vividly recall a moment when you felt your heart “strangely warmed,” or even worried that you might be extinguished by the FIRE, the certainty, the heartfelt joy and peace of the God of Abraham. Or you may wonder if “the unapproachable mystery” of God has ever even talked to you at all in the quietness of your unconscious.
I pray that Jesus, with his comparisons that perplex, stretch and delight us, will shelter us under his wing. As we dig for treasure, while the kingdom leavens the bread of our lives, I pray that we recognize the pearl of great value. I pray that we may rejoice in the gift that Jesus offers every day, in the only treasure worth having – the gift of a whole life lived in God. Brothers and sisters, may the net of God’s love draw us ever closer together!
 Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Seeds of Heaven,” The Seeds of Heaven: Sermons on the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) 39.
 John Wesley, The Journal of John Wesley. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/wesley/journal.vi.ii.xvi.html.
 Margaret Ruth Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005) 368.
 Margaret Ruth Miles, The Word Made Flesh: A History of Christian Thought (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2005) 335.
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part One Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) 165.
 If this were not enough, the words we use, and even the entire system of meaning that we depend on gets worn out too. Think about that formerly obscure religious word “awesome” and what it meant in 1957 and how it is used today. The same is true of “cool,” “sin,” “reconciliation,“ and today, “sad.” I have in mind here the semiotics of Charles Sanders Peirce and the work of Robert Neville regarding the truth about broken symbols.
 Except Lk. 18:38.
 “If in this event we link up with the fact that we have perhaps believed before, and if in this event we receive the promise that we will again believe in the future, if there is thus a state of believing which embraces past, present and future, faith itself is not identical with this state of believing. As distinct from it, it is never something which is there already. It is always a gift which has to be seized again and again” (706). “It is not to be denied but rather affirmed that in certain humanly identifiable moments and situations, not simply in recollection or expectation but in the concrete present of faith, we are in fact humbly and thankfully aware in a very special way, not merely of our state of believing, but of our real faith, and therefore of our whole life as a life lived in God, and that in this sense we gladly recall such moments as certainly significant” (708). Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part Two Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956), 699-708.
 Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007) 143, 472.
 Henry David Thoreau, Journal (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981-) 4:55.
 Robert D. Richards, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006) 477.
 Ibid., 181.
Malcolm Clemens Young Isaiah 44:6-8
Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, CA X24 Psalm 86:11-17
7a Pentecost (Proper 11A) 8:30, 11:00 a.m. Eucharist Romans 8:12-25
Sunday 23 July 2017 Mt. 13:24-30, 36-43
Help in Weakness
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” (Rom. 8).
“It is not we who can sustain the Church, nor was it our forefathers, nor will it be our descendants. It was and is and will be the One who says, “I am with you always, even to the end of the world.” Martin Luther writes this about Jesus. He quotes the last line from The Gospel of Matthew. “And remember, I am with you even to the end of the age” (Mt. 28). This has become a kind of motto for me. These words make Jesus feel so near. Perhaps this could be true for you too.
The twentieth century theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) recognizes that philosophies and scientific pictures of the universe are constantly evolving. For this reason, and because what we assume at the beginning in large part determines our conclusions, Barth starts not with a theory of the human condition but with what he calls the Word of God. He begins with the living God of the Bible and the way that the Holy Spirit inspires us as we read it carefully. Barth points out a human tendency that you might recognize. Let me explain with an example.
In 1820 Thomas Jefferson completed a project that he had worked on for decades. He went through the New Testament with a razor, cut out the parts he disagreed with and then pasted together what was leftover, that is, what he actually believed. Not to spoil the surprise, but Jefferson’s book The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth took out what he considered to be any reference to miracles and the resurrection.
In many ways we do the same kind of thing. Most people in our society, spend more time sitting in judgment of God than they do in trying to obey God. We are part of this. We almost cannot help ourselves. Barth challenges us to do something different. He writes, “Our supposed listening is in fact a strange mixture of hearing and our own speaking… [typically] it is most likely that our own speaking will be the really decisive event. We have to know the mystery… if we are really to meet it, if we are really to be open and ready, really to give ourselves to it…”
For Barth, “Scripture is always autonomous and independent.” It finds the people intended for it. He writes that the miracle is that, “fallible [people] speak the Word of God in fallible human words” “awakening and strengthening… our faith.” To summarize, although we hear the Bible with our constantly running inner monologue, the miracle is that sometimes God gets through to us. Barth writes, “In Jesus Christ, I am revealed to myself as he who in the totality of his existence is received and accepted by Him.”
I talked to a few of you about today’s reading. We had some hard conversations. Several of you did not like this picture of a final judgment, “the furnace of fire,” “the weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt. 13).
Crowds have gathered to hear Jesus talk about the kingdom of heaven. He describes it as a pearl of great price or a field with treasure in it, as worth trading everything we have in order to possess. It is a tiny mustard seed that grows into a great plant and dominates the landscape. It is like yeast or a net cast into the sea. It is right before us but hidden, perhaps because we have difficulty listening.
Jesus compares the kingdom to someone who sows good seed in the fields but whose enemy comes in the night and plants what our translation calls weeds. The Greek word is zizania and means darnel (or Eurasian Ryegrass sometimes called “false wheat) a particular kind of plant easily confused for wheat. You might even imagine the very roots of the two grasses interwoven in the soil.
As the first shoots come up the workers ask where the zizania come from and if they should remove pull it out. The householder says an enemy has done this but that uprooting the weeds will unintentionally involve pulling up wheat too. He tells them to wait for the harvest when the reapers will burn the weeds and gather the wheat into the barn.
Jesus offers an explanation in only two of Matthew’s forty parables. This is one of them. Privately he tells his friends that the enemy is the devil, the one who sows good seed is the Son of Man, the reapers are the angels and “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen” (Mt. 13)!
Let’s return to Barth’s original challenge. Instead of standing in judgment of Jesus’ words, how do we become obedient to them? We should begin with the question that Jesus’ parable answers. You too might hear this complaint about God more than any other these days. If God is good and powerful why is there so much evil in the world?
The point of the parable is not to scare you into being a better person. The weeds are not trying to become wheat, the wheat cannot become a weed. The fifteenth century theologian John Calvin (1509-1564) believed that we are simply what God made us to be. He thought that if you are concerned about being God’s child that is a pretty good sign that you already are.
The point is that as we survey our lives, we are not even qualified to distinguish the wheat from the weeds. We cannot even recognize the good and evil events or even the people for what and who they are. We have to suspend our judgment and let God be God.
Do any of you remember Eddie Haskell the teenaged character from the television show Leave It to Beaver? He was a terrible and cruel bully to the kids but seemed to have all the adults completely fooled by the polite way he spoke to them. We are all subject to the Eddie Haskell effect. We simply cannot tell who is genuinely close to God, whose heart is full of love. We do not always have to have an opinion about everyone. For homework lets try turning off the judgment switch at least three times this week.
The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out that this is tremendously difficult for us. He writes that, “We make our first judgments rapidly, and we are dreadful at seeking out evidence that might disconfirm these initial judgments.” He compares the vast sea of subliminal moral perceptions, urges and desires to a kind of elephant who cannot be controlled by the rider which is our sense of rationality. For him the elephant is in charge of the rider, “reason is the servant of the intuitions.” Our rationality is a kind of fulltime public relations firm” offering, “post hoc explanations for what the elephant has just done.”
I worry a little about this whole conversation on being obedient to scripture and Jesus’ teaching that we should set aside our innate tendency and leave judgment to God. Talking in this way may feel abstract or distant from our lives. I worry even more about what I am about to tell you, that you will think less of me. But we need a reminder of what it really feels like when things go wrong.
This week my son Micah asked, “Dad after the 2008 financial crisis did you lose weight or gain it?” Everyone in our family remembers that winter. It was when our church suffered a colossal failure of communication and trust. On a January day I walked into the office and a colleague told me that angry parishioners were holding a secret meeting, establishing a parallel leadership structure apart from the elected board of the church. They worried about a new school we were starting, the budget, divisions between young and old, but mostly it was about me.
I lost twelve pounds in two weeks. I couldn’t sleep. My eye started twitching. When I went running I would try to visualize setting down a model of the church beside the path and going on. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it even for ten minutes. This beautiful community, this gift from God, was shaken by misunderstanding and enmity, by an entirely unnecessary and senseless bitterness.
In the end, there was more than enough forgiveness and reconciliation to go around. But it was very painful before that.
Maybe you have felt helpless or radical self-doubt in a tragedy, as if the enemy was succeeding at turning good people against each other, or bringing out the worst possible events. Perhaps that is how you feel today. At moments like this no one can tell us that this terrible suffering might lead to something really great. Only someone with the power of Jesus can help us to recognize that ultimately we cannot distinguish the wheat from the weeds.
The Apostle Paul writes about a lot of moments like this. He writes from prison, after being betrayed by friends or beaten and humiliated by the authorities. And he points out what I find true in my own life, that God does not abandon us in times like this. He says, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8).
Karl Barth believes that all of scripture culminates with you, right now as part of the process by which God’s Word unfolds. Your story is how Christ’s story makes contact with the world. Barth writes, “We ourselves in our humanity stand at the preliminary end and goal of this process, not left outside, but drawn into its orbit, not as strangers but as children of the household, not as onlookers but as those who cooperate in responsibility, not in ignorance, but as participants in the divine knowledge…”
And so I now leave us to return to our own inner monologues with the prayer that God’s Word can make it through to us. When you rage against the weeds in your life I pray for the miraculous power to suspend judgment and let God be God. When you feel hurt, when the rash elephant of your instantaneous moral judgments runs wild, I pray that the Spirit will intercede with “sighs too deep for words.”
“It is not we who can sustain the Church, nor was it our forefathers, nor will it be our descendants. It was and is and will be the One who says, “I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”
 Martin Luther W.A. 54, 470, 474f cited in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part Two Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) xi.
 In the last few months I have read about 1400 pages of the Karl Barth’s never-completed 9000 page work Church Dogmatics.
 Thomas Jefferson, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English. A recent New York Times article on this topic: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/04/opinion/thomas-jeffersons-bible-teaching.html?smid=pl-share&_r=0
 Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part Two Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) 470.
 Ibid., 583.
 “… every time we turn the Word of God into an infallible biblical word of man or the biblical word of man into an infallible Word of God we resist that which we ought never to resist, i.e., the truth of the miracle that here fallible men speak the Word of God in fallible human words – and we therefore resist the sovereignty of grace, in which God Himself became man in Christ, to glorify Himself in his humanity“ (529). We believe that the Bible is the Word of God… Of course, the whole mystery of this statement rests on the fact that faith is not for everybody, and that even if we have it, it is a small and weak and inadequate because not a true faith. Therefore the miracle which has to take place if the Bible is to rise up and speak to us as the Word of God has always to consist in an awakening and strengthening of our faith.” (512), Ibid., 529, 512.
 Ibid., 706.
 John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion tr. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960).
 Sometimes I ask my teenagers about other kids because I know that I only experience young people in the moments when adults are around.
 Edward F. Markquart, “Weeds and Wheat,” Series A Sermons, http://www.sermonsfromseattle.com/series_a_weeds_and_wheat.htm
 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (NY: Pantheon Books, 2012) 46-7.
 There were two secret meetings. They gave a powerpoint presentation to the vestry that fell two days after the funeral for a nineteen year old former youth group member who I loved.
 At my funeral one day they will read his final conclusion, that “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8).
 “… yet we cannot fail to reckon with the fact that it does actually happen that in our humanity we ourselves are now drawn into the process in which the Word of God exercises its freedom and as the word of prophets and apostles takes its course through the world. That we are believers and witnesses will always be a matter of doubt, and humanly speaking even for despair. We have to remember that this is a reality for which we can never do more than give thanks and pray. But we deny this reality, and therefore the whole process of events in which God’s Word comes to man as a human word, and therefore the work of the Son and even God Himself, if we try to escape the fact that we ourselves in our humanity stand at the preliminary end and goal of this process not left outside, but drawn into its orbit, not as strangers but as children of the household, not as onlookers but as those who cooperate in responsibility, not in ignorance, but as participants in the divine knowledge, conscientes”
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics Volume 1, Part Two Tr. G. W. Bromiley (NY: T&T Clark, 1956) 701.
The Rev. Mary Carter Greene’s sermon manuscript will be available soon.